I was expecting Around the World in Eighty Days to be very Eat, Pray, Love-esque, in the sense that I thought it’d make me want to jump on a plane and explore the world. It didn’t; the book is more about precision than it is about wanderlust. But that’s actually something I loved about it: it was filled with adventure without getting caught up in the sentimental details that are typically found in books about travel (e.g. “Here’s how my trip to *insert place* changed my life forever…”).
Following the journey of Phileas Fogg, the impassive main character, was simultaneously frustrating and thrilling. As the title suggests, Fogg attempts to go around the world in eighty days due to a bet against his British colleagues, and he plows through every location without ever taking the time to appreciate the experience. But it’s not like he doesn’t have the opportunity to! His French servant Passepartout, who accompanies him and provides comic relief throughout the novel, joyously explores the stops and marvels at their unique people, buildings, and cultures. Over time, though, my frustration over Fogg’s apathy faded. I realized this need that I felt for him to “take in the sights” was just one of my paradigms of travel. Not doing so, like Fogg, isn’t necessarily wasteful or wrong.
So you’d think that if he was just going from place to place, as precisely as clockwork, it’d get pretty boring, right? Well, there are two reasons why the plot remains thrilling throughout the entire book: first, the stakes are high. £20,000, which is about $26,000, could be lost if Fogg doesn’t make it in time…and the means of travel in 1873 were not nearly as reliable as they are now. Eighty days was a bare minimum estimation, so any mishap in travel (like missing a train or a ship) had the potential to completely jeopardize the mission. Second, new characters are constantly popping up and actually being developed. Verne made these people more than just their roles, so you actually get a sense of who they are instead of merely how they contributed. All the minor characters are memorable, even if they were only around for a chapter.
My only criticisms of Around the World are the occasionally dry descriptions and its adaptations (which Verne has no control over, so no blame there!). Fogg’s journey is complex, and so were the details of his route: “After leaving the island of Bombay it crosses to Salsette, joins the mainland opposite Tannah, crosses the chain of the Western Ghats, runs north-east as far as Burhampur, travels through the more or less independent territory of Bundelkhand…” Anyone who isn’t a geography whiz would be completely perplexed. No worries, though—these descriptions are a page long at most, so they’re definitely not something that should deter you!
And finally, the movie adaptations…. Have you ever noticed that all of them involve a hot air balloon!? Okay, this will be my ONE spoiler: THERE ARE NO FREAKING HOT AIR BALLOONS IN THE BOOK. I have two hypotheses for why directors decided to include this. My first is that they were drawing inspiration from this line in the book: “Nevertheless, it was essential to find a way of crossing the Atlantic by boat—unless they could get across in a hot-air balloon, which would have been very risky and, in any case, was not practical.” This was the only time a hot air balloon was ever mentioned, and again, it wasn’t even used.
My second hypothesis is that it was an act of homage to the body of Verne’s works as a whole: Un voyage en ballon, the French title of “A Drama In the Air” (though it’s literal translation is “A Trip In a Balloon”), was one of Verne’s first short stories ever published. Either way, the hot air balloon has now become somewhat of a symbol for Around the World. And if you look at its various book covers (excluding the one I used for this review—note to self: send a thank you email to Penguin Classics for NOT being misleading), most of them include a reference to a scene that never existed. Oy.
Overall, though, this book was pretty good! It definitely kept me entertained, and it’s a pretty quick read for someone craving a classic. So, bon travail, Verne!